Hallmark Movies & Mysteries launches its newest franchise film series Saturday night with Gourmet Detective. Headlined by Dylan Neal, who also executive produced and co-wrote the script with his wife, Becky Southwell, the film follows Henry Ross,Â a culinary clue finder who’s often brought in to help restaurants cope with pesky business problems.
In the first film of a planned series, he’s calledÂ upon toÂ help solve a murder and that pairs him with Maggie, a less-than-enthusiastic detective played by Brooke Burns. We chatted with Neal last summer as he wrapped Cedar Cove and was working on the script for the film. We caught up with him again last month, back at work on Cedar Cove‘s third season, to chat about the movies.
Neal and Southwell have written together before and successfully soldÂ a few of their scripts, but this was the first project whereÂ they made the leap to executive producers, and he says it was a learning curve. “As a veteran actor,Â you think you know a lot of what goes on behind the scenes but you really don’t until you go through it,” he admits. “Logistics were a real education for me. Once you’re back in post, there’s a good education that goes on there, too. It’s all about learning how to compromise.Â Having all these parties [from finance to talent to production] come together is a juggling act and I’m learning.”
Neal says he and SouthwellÂ wanted a film project that was in the same vein as Castle or Hart to Hart that also fit the Hallmark brand, and the tie-in with food keyed in on another popular tenet of the networks. They had two book series in mind, and the “Gourmet Detective” book series by the later PeterÂ King was the one selected. Once the project was greenlit, the work began to pare down the first book for a film.
“The [films]Â are a work in progress. We’re going to keep tailoring them. It was tricky adapting the book. I think there were 35 characters that I had to whittle down toÂ six or seven,”Â Neal explains.Â “[I got there with]Â a little bit of trial and error.Â There were many, many drafts of the script. I broke the book down first and then Becky did her own pass on my script,Â and then we divvied up sections and kept burrowing in.”
“It was a challenge to keep the throughline of the [crime] and how few characters could we get away with. We didn’t want it to be too dense or complicated. It’s supposed to be a light, fun ride. It is a fun cast. Ideally, [the story is about]Â Henry and Maggie. It’s an exercise in learning how best to make a movie. The trick is to detangle the [books]Â and get just enough of the mystery and still have a really fun ride with Henry and Maggie.”
Neal feels particularly fortunate to have Hallmark stapleÂ Burns as his partner in crime. “I teased Brooke that I vetted her mercilessly before pulling the trigger on her. She was on our short list. I made calls around town and everybody could not speak more highly of her as a person and as an actress,” he says. “I felt very lucky we ended up with Brooke. I couldn’t imagine doing it without her. I want to have a funny, happy atmosphere on set, and I couldn’t have gottenÂ a better partner in doing that.”
Neal is especially proud that he even had crew asking to come back on the next films. “We’re making movies,” he says. “You work hard and do the best you can every day, and we should have fun. It’s magical when you can have a truly fun time.”
I asked about a Twitter thread I threw out to Burns this spring about somehow working Henry Winkler, with whom she co-starred inÂ The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,Â intoÂ one of theÂ films, and Neal laughed that Burns loves him. “We would jump at the opportunity if we had a role where he made sense,” he says.
The plan is to adapt a movie per book, but the books are really the jumping off point.Â “Ultimately we use very little of the books. Maggie doesn’t exist in the books. They all take place in Europe, and Henry never actually solves the cases in the books,” he points out. “It’s a challenge and it’s very freeing so we can do whatever we want. We optioned the title and keep the kernel of the murder mystery and make it up as we go. Some [movies] will have more of the original story and some won’t.”
When I chatted with Neal last summer, the plan was to shoot the films in Ontario, but production ended up in Victoria, B.C. after the movie’s setting shifted to San Francisco. The driving forces there were Victoria’s architecture, and a new tax credit that stacks on top of the British Columbia tax credit.
Neal says that has led to an uptickÂ in productions.Â “We were the only one in town in December [when we shot the first one],” he explains. “When we shot the second one, there were five [productions].”
Funnily enough, returning to B.C. was fairly native to Neal, who’s been working in the area back-to-back even though L.A. is home base. “I’ve worked non-stopÂ for two and a halfÂ years and everything I’ve done has been in British Columbia,” he says.Â “We lived up here when I did Blood Ties. It was an experiment to see how it worked juggling an LA-based career. [After it wrapped,] we skedaddled back home to L.A., which is very much like home for us.”
Two of the films have been shot, and a third is planned to shoot this fall. “There could be as many as nine,” says Neal. “We’re doing them in cycles of three.”
Concurrent with shooting Cedar Cove, which will return to Hallmark Channel’s lineup on July 18th, Neal is also executive producing a film he co-wrote with Southwell for Hallmark Channel. Set to film in Ontario, it’sÂ called Disorderly Conduct,Â andÂ is aÂ romantic comedy about two city girls who run into trouble with the law in a small town and have to do community service and it changes their lives for the better.
Gourmet Detective premieres Saturday night at 9/8c on Hallmark Movies & Mysteries. In addition to Neal and Burns, look forÂ Supernatural‘s Samantha Ferris, Haven/When Calls the Heart‘s Laura Mennell, Dead Like Me‘sÂ Christine Willes, and a host of familiar Canadian (and Hallmark) faces. Here’s a sneak peek.
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